When thinking about how to come up with more referrals from your client roster, perhaps a seemingly counterintuitive approach is the best: Stop asking clients for them and start thanking clients for the referrals they’ve given — whether they’ve given any or not. Two words — thank you — go a long way.

Top advisors have all manner of strategies for securing those all-important referrals from current clients, but one thing they seem to agree on is the need for referrals to become part of the process.

“Most advisors don’t have a referral strategy,” says Ken Unger, president of Million Dollar Producer Inc. (www.mdproducer.com), based in Roseville, Calif. “They think, ‘You’re my client and I expect you to give me referrals. I’ve earned them.’ That’s not strategic enough.”Simply saying “I ask for referrals” doesn’t cut it, according to the experts. That leaves room to overlook the act of asking, say, if a window of opportunity doesn’t open. When the query arises is going to be different for each advisor, but it usually comes down to a matter of trust.

“If you’re not comfortable with presenting people with a referral card on the first visit, do it later,” says Brian Maroevich, owner of Insurance-Leads-Advisor.com in Novato, Calif. “But you have to do it. At the point when you have their trust, do it.”

Gaining that trust is vital, and getting there isn’t easy. Maroevich says advisors have to give clients a unique experience from the first phone call, because providing a plan might be enough to get someone’s money but it might not be enough to earn referrals.

“People aren’t going to refer you just because you do a good job,” Maroevich says. “Twenty thousand advisors can do a good job. If advisors position themselves in a unique way, they are going to get more referrals.”
Unger says creating that unique experience boils down to three big-picture criteria:

  1. Provide an unbeatable level of service.
  2. Provide a high level of expertise.
  3. Maintain a high level of visibility.

Advisors should be willing to do more than they have to, Unger says. If that means knowing the best health care provider, dry cleaner, grocery store and pizza joint in the area — in addition to knowing financial products and how to place them in a solid plan — find out what those are. If that means meeting certain clients in their home instead of in the office, it will pay dividends. Whatever it takes.

“It’s not just words,” Unger counsels, “It’s action.”

Once those actions have paid off and trust has been established, it’s time to ask for referrals. Part of some advisors’ process of earning referrals — yes, they do still ask newer clients — is helping clients remember the names and numbers of their friends and family. By using a worksheet broken out into various categories of acquaintances, it helps them dig out that information stored in the database of their brains.

Some of the groups on that worksheet include neighbors, friends and children; church, club and association members; golf buddies; and centers of influence. People are much more apt to remember names when they can think in terms of how they know other people. And even if they can’t remember phone numbers, copy the worksheet for the client, send them home with a copy and give them three or four days to retrieve the numbers, at which point they know you are going to call them. It’s just all part of the process.

Be seen and heard
As important as having a process is, it can all fall apart if an advisor becomes an afterthought. Financial professionals have to remain visible to clients, whether that means face-to-face meetings, newsletters, conference calls, seminars, client events or any other manner of reaching out and touching the people responsible for their success.

“If you’re meeting with clients once a year [and not touching them otherwise], why would they refer you?” Unger asks. “Putting together a plan or meeting their needs isn’t enough.”

Making someone a client instead of a customer takes 14 to 15 contacts per year, and a monthly newsletter takes care of 12 of those. But don’t make the mistake of filling a newsletter with financially intensive material. Seniors don’t want to read about products; they depend on advisors to know that stuff and use that knowledge to help them. Maroevich encourages advisors to put some personality into their newsletters.

“Write about your family, kids, grandkids. Use your personality, not canned financial product or market information,” he says, adding that a print newsletter is a great place for a referral card insert.

Warren Financial Service (www.warrenfinancial.com), based in Lineville, Pa., creates two quarterly newsletters, one for clients and one for prospects. The client newsletter covers what they have invested in and why, says Randy Warren, the company’s chief investment officer. The prospect newsletter is much more general, but it goes a long way to establishing a relationship.

Tele-seminars, like newsletters, Webinars and Web sites, are tools for multiplying oneself, in Maroevich’s words. They’re less expensive than a live seminar and there’s less pressure on attendees to schedule appointments — another way of gaining referrals without asking for them. Organize a tele-seminar around a compelling subject (to find out what seniors consider compelling, survey clients), encourage clients to invite friends and call in, and enlist an expert in the subject to talk. Advisors can get in front of clients with another contact and impress prospects by presenting a sales-free service.

The other ways of staying visible won’t surprise anyone. Get on the phone to clients — making and responding to calls, as Warren says. Send five, 10, 15 e-mails a day. Use Web sites to post Webinars. Others have created multimedia CDs that introduces themselves and their services. Clients will be able to give it to friends and family, and advisors can send it to referrals he earns from clients.

Overlooked touches
Many of the strategies and activities mentioned so far are always near the top of advisors’ minds, whether they engage in them or not. Successful referral-getters have more ways of making an impact and earning names and numbers.

Client events are important. No sales, just appreciation for their business. Have clients bring friends and say thank you. And don’t make the mistake of limiting it to top clients, because sometimes a small account can refer a big one.

Maroevich swears by handwritten thank you notes and cards. “It’s a forgotten art,” he says, and seniors especially can remember a time when handwritten cards and letters were the primary form of long-distance communication. He also encourages advisors to use a sign in the office lobby, something that says “Welcome, Mr. and Mrs. Smith.” They’re personal touches that are warm and memorable.

The center of activity in many houses is the kitchen — even if no cooking actually takes place in there — so Warren says refrigerator magnets are a nice touch for clients. Inexpensive for the advisor and utilitarian for seniors, one never knows when a magnet might catch an inquisitive friend’s eye.

Asking for referrals is simple, but it’s difficult because it makes many advisors uncomfortable, even when they know clients trust them. Advisors can either stop asking — not advisable — or stop asking by saying thank you instead. Or they can provide service and expertise extraordinaire. Or they can stay highly visible in a good way; not like a no-talent starlet with a designer bag and a palm-sized dog. Or they can, well, you get the picture.

“None of this is that hard,” Unger says. “Many practices are not that far away. There are a lot of small things advisors can be doing.”